After going 1-4 to start the season, the Lakers have fired Mike Brown. It is not surprising that a change was made after the Lakers started off slow, playing surprisingly bad defense to go with their struggles to make the Princeton offense work, but many of us expected Brown to be the one to make the adjustment. Instead, the Lakers went with a more drastic approach and cut ties with their coach.
After a couple of years of coming up short in the playoffs, Mitch Kupchak made some blockbuster trades this past summer, bringing in Howard and Nash. Before the trades, Kobe and Brown where talking about implementing a variation of the Princeton offense, which made some sense at the time. After the trades, it was clear that the approach was not going to work, yet both Bryant and Brown decided to stick with it. As soon as the firing took place, rumors started to surface that they will forsake the Pete Carrill-created system, probably replacing it with a more traditional pick and roll heavy offense that better utilizes Nash and Howard.
With a new coach, things could change for the reeling Lakers, but we have to wonder if this will be the year when they reach their full potential. In spite of the offense not looking healthy at all, in addition to wasting Nash's talents, the Lakers didn't have too much difficulty scoring. They currently rank 7th in offensive rating and 6th in eFG. Their biggest problem was their 25th ranked defense, which couldn't cause turnovers and fouled too much. After finishing 13th in defensive rating last season, it makes sense to assume that the new acquisitions might have had a negative effect on the Lakers' ability to get stops. Nash has always been a sub-par defender, but Howard has looked about as bad as I have ever seen him on that side of the ball. His back injury has limited his mobility, which makes him a step slow on rotations and has made his P&R defense look nothing like the game-changing skill it was in his best years in Orlando. As to whether he'll recover fully and get his mobility back during the season, that is anyone's guess at this point, but he should at least show some progress, which the Lakers desperately need as they are allowing 68.5% in attempts at the rim, good for 25th in the league.
The Lakers are now trying to find a replacement, and with Phil Jackson seemingly happy to stay a retiree, the names that are starting to fly are Jerry Sloan and Mike D'Antoni. Sloan probably has the players' respect and could bring some order to the locker room, but one has to wonder how his hard-ass approach would play with Kobe and especially Dwight Howard, who couldn't handle a similarly pushy coach in Stan Van Gundy. As for the system, Sloan's flex style offense could work with the Lakers' current pieces but the system requires everyone to cut constantly and the Lakers have struggled with staying in motion, often deferring to Kobe on isolations to make a play. Sloan also reportedly did not particularly like when Deron Williams freelanced and broke plays, so I'm assuming he would not be too happy with Kobe waving everyone off or MWP dribbling aimlessly only to take an ill-advised shot.
D'Antoni has coached Nash before to great results and could make the Nash-Howard P&R work beautifully. He also made the best of Boris Diaw's talent as a passing big man, so there is no reason to believe the multi-talented Pau Gasol wouldn't thrive with him. The problem then would be two-fold: first, taking Kobe, a high usage, high volume shooter that likes to slow things down and work in the post on occasion, and dumping him in a free flowing offense that relies on the point guard to dominate. The second, and more prominent issue, would be establishing a defensive identity, something that has never been D'Antoni's strong-suit. If Howard recovers his form, the Lakers should be fine on that side of the ball, even considering the lack of a top flight defensive mind. At his best, Howard can single-handedly make a defense respectable. But if these early struggles by both the big man, and the team in general, are a sign of the Lakers' ceiling on D for this year, D'Antoni might not offer much to LA's glitziest team.
So the Lakers, who a lot of pundits where crowning best team in the league before they even played a game together, have gone through a pretty big transformation already and it is anyone's guess where they go from here. You can never know for sure with Phil Jackson, but his departure wasn't in the best of terms and it would be hard to see both him and Jim Buss patch things up fast enough for him to take over the team right now. And that's not even considering that the Triangle doesn't seem like the best offense to make optimize Nash and Howard's talents. Stan Van Gundy probably is in no hurry to coach Dwight again. Rick Adelman, George Karl and Rick Carlisle are already employed. That does not leave a lot of top candidates with the reputation and coaching acumen to come in and instantly demand respect and turn things around for the Lakers.
Now, this doesn't mean the Spurs are now the favorites to come out of the West; it has only been a few games and the Spurs haven't looked as sharp as last season, while other teams, like the Clippers and even the Mavs, seem improved. But coming into the season, most people had the Spurs behind only OKC and the Lakers in the West, and those teams have lost their X factor (and best playmaker) and their coach, respectively. Predicting how things will be 20 games from now (never mind in the playoffs) for any of the teams involved is impossible, but it seems the West race is wide open for squads that possess proven talent and have maintained some cohesiveness. The Spurs have a lot of work to do and injuries could derail any team's season, not to mention that a trade could completely shift the balance of power. But at least at the moment, it looks like the Spurs are the only contender out West whose season is going according to plan.
While others keep making last minute changes, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan keep pounding that rock for the 15th straight year. Some thought the Spurs' reliance on continuity was a weakness. Now, with teams shuffling to adapt after making rushed decisions, once again San Antonio's vaunted patience seems like one of their biggest assets.